Noelle Eckley Selin’s work to cut air pollution in urban areas has attracted the attention of environmental policy makers in China, Western Europe, and the United States.

In part, Selin’s research focuses on understanding where pollution comes from—say, power plants or car exhaust—to where it’s going, like right into major cities. Then, “I ask questions about the policies or interventions that would be most effective in controlling it,” says the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Professor.

Selin works with multiple computer models that, when linked, not only track air pollution, but also determine its economic impact as measured by effects on human health. The models, for example, can compare the levels of pollutants emitted with and without various regulations, then monetize the costs for both scenarios associated with lost labor and health care. The work focuses on ozone and particulate matter because those pollutants are responsible for the vast majority of health costs associated with air pollution, says Selin, who has appointments in the Engineering Systems Division and in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Using these models, Selin and colleagues have shown that air pollution in Europe and China has had a major impact on those regions’ respective economies. The team found that air pollution in China, for example, cost the country $112 billion in 2005, up from $22 billion in 1975.

Similarly, the team reported that three decades of air pollution in 18 Western European countries resulted in an average annual economic loss of about 220 billion Euros as of 2005. The researchers further found that the application of a set of air-quality policies could save the region more than 37 billion Euros in the year 2020 alone.

Those numbers are larger than those arrived at by others because Selin’s approach includes the impact of pollutants over time, an effect similar to compounding interest. “Traditional methods of assessing the burdens of air pollution that are used in a lot of regulations don’t take that into account. Our approach addresses this more comprehensively,” says Selin, who is also affiliated with the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Recently, Selin has been applying her modeling techniques to the effects of different potential climate policies on air pollutants—and human health—across the northeastern U.S. That work, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, is attracting the attention of state and regional regulators who “want to know what to do better,” Selin says.

Although trained as an atmospheric chemist, Selin thrives on the interdisciplinary nature of her work. “It goes beyond looking at one small corner of a problem to looking at the problem holistically. You get to build on lots of different kinds of analyses and disciplines, from economics to atmospheric chemistry to health impacts.”

Selin hopes that her work will lead to smarter policy making about air pollution and how to manage it. “That, in turn, could help make people healthier over the long term, both in the U.S. and, ultimately, worldwide,” she says.

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